In his early teens, Ari Leff picked up a guitar and started writing songs that uncannily captured all the nuance of heartbreak. “For whatever reason, before I ever had any sort of relationship, I had this weird obsession with writing love songs and breakup songs,” says the L.A.-based singer/songwriter/producer. “I remember being a kid and my dad asking me, ‘Why do you write all these sad songs all the time?’ But to me that’s always been one of the most beautiful ways to connect with people on a real level. There’s nothing like openness of being in love, and for me that vulnerability is maybe the most important part of being alive.”
On “The Other”—Leff’s breakthrough single under the moniker of Lauv—that unguarded honesty instills a slow-burning fusion of R&B and indie-pop. Featured on Lauv’s debut EP Lost in the Light, the quietly aching track reached #11 on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlist and amassed over 70 million streams on the platform by early 2017. With his latest single “I Like Me Better,” Lauv offers up a more uptempo track built on gracefully sculpted beats and shimmering melody. But even with its brighter mood, “I Like Me Better” still delivers the soul-baring lyrics and intimate vocals that perfectly reflect Lauv’s artistic mission.
“Being vulnerable is the hardest thing for so many people, including myself, but it’s also the most satisfying thing,” says Leff. “In day-to-day life there’s so much that’s calculated: so many fake, surface-level interactions that don’t amount to anything. Getting away from that and being completely real in my music has been so cathartic for me, and my hope is that my songs can somehow empower people to be real with themselves and with other people too.”
Born in San Francisco, Leff moved around the country throughout his childhood and learned to play piano and viola as a kid. Once he’d taken up guitar and thrown himself into writing those heart-on-sleeve love songs, he started a solo indie-electronic project that included booking his own tours. After high school, Leff began studying music technology at New York University, where he immersed himself in production and ended up signing to the publishing company Prescription Songs.
During his college years, Leff strayed from his intensely personal work and shifted his focus to writing and producing for other artists. “I got further away from how I’d started out writing, which was totally stream-of-consciousness and natural, and closer to writing what I thought people might want to hear,” he recalls. But during his sophomore year, Leff had a perspective shift when he stumbled upon a particularly illuminating interview with Paul Simon. In the interview, Simon described his songwriting approach as a process of uncovering his most buried feelings—a concept that hit home for Leff. “Reading that interview, something clicked in me and helped me get back in touch with the way I used to write,” Leff says. “I started learning how to let go again, how to stop second-guessing and overanalyzing myself, and just focus on being honest.”
Soon afterward, Leff came up with “The Other” and launched Lauv as a solo project. (The name translates to “lion” in Latvian—a nod to his mother’s heritage, as well as to his zodiac sign.) With its sleek beats and tender piano work, “The Other” reveals an inventive musicality partly developed through studying jazz guitar. As Leff explains, the warmly textured yet minimalistic track was also closely shaped by his instinct-driven songcraft. “When I’m working on a new song, I don’t go into it with any specific idea of what I want it to sound like,” he says. “It’s more like a process of discovery, where I just explore and see what happens. For me that’s the best way to keep evolving.”
Since releasing “The Other” (which hit the Global Top 100 on Spotify), Lauv has appeared at festivals like Firefly and brought the wistful intimacy of his music to the live arena. As heard on “I Like Me Better,” that unfettered openness remains a major touchstone for Lauv. “Before I started making music as Lauv, I’d lost that sense of who I really was for a while,” says Leff. “It seems like a lot of people lose touch with that forever, and end up living a life that’s not really true to who they are. By being so honest in my songs, I want to encourage people to be okay with who they are and what they feel. More than anything else, that’s what drives me to create music in a massive way.”